Text: Henry Austin, “Poe Coming to His Kingdom,” Dial, November 1, 1899, 47:307-308


∞∞∞∞∞∞∞


­ [page 307:]

POE COMING TO HIS KINGDOM.

————

To one who tries to study Literature in the large, it seems as if we were just now passing through one of those irritating transition periods in which all standards are lowered or confused, in which Conglomeration reigns, taste gets freaky or fantastical, and True Art hides her head or goes to sleep. Of course, all periods are transitional; but some by their accentuation acquire the especial name, when literary or historic annals are compiled, and balances just, or approximate, are struck.

But, irritating as the present period may or must be to the subtlest nerves of criticism, it is not without its assuring signs, its cloudless promises. The most cheering of present omens — more than an omen; indeed, almost a right earnest — is the final rendering of complete literary justice in the land of his birth to that genuine man of letters whom the critical consensus of Europe has long acclaimed as our greatest literary genius. The recognition is rather late, but, clearly, it is to be lasting. Edgar Allan Poe, — “the Yankee Yahoo,” a stupid English reviewer once called him, “that jingle-man” Emerson with unwonted blindness or bitterness labelled him, while Lowell, who knew better, spoke of him as “three-fifths genius and two-fifths sheer fudge,” — has come, at last, to his kingdom. When the University of Virginia, the Alms Mater from which he was not expelled and where he was never censured even for alleged vices then common among [column 2:] the sons of Virginian gentry, honored his memory, but chiefly itself, by celebrating on October seventh the fiftieth anniversary of his untimely death, and by unveiling, with fitting ceremonies of prayer, poem, and address, a fine bust by an excellent sculptor, this long-delayed rendition of poetic justice, this formal recognition in America of his world-wide fame and genius, was made complete.

The choice of essayist for the occasion may be fairly considered a happy inspiration on the part of the committee, Professors Kent and Harrison. Mr. Hamilton W. Mabie rose to his theme easily, and in the agreement of all brother critics who had the pleasure of hearing him deliver his choicely chosen phrases, he surpassed all his former adventures in the field of criticism. Mr. Mabie happily steered between the Scylla of loose laudation and the Charybdis of exaggeration where so many admirers of Poe have been drowned, and at the same time he announced that Poe was entitled to the first place in American letters by virtue of possessing a most exacting literary conscience and producing works of the clearest and finest art. His essay, which will appear soon in the “Atlantic Monthly,” and to which I eagerly commend all readers of THE DIAL, was as convincing in its equations as it was temperate in its eloquence.

But more convincing still as to Poe’s position at the present day were the letters which arrived from all parts of the country, in which many of the most justly distinguished men and women of the literary craft paid cordial tribute to the great man whom his own day and generation kept close on the brink of starvation and stimulated to seek solace in those occasional excesses to which, most unfortunately, he appears to have had a terrible pre-natal bias. It was clear from those letters, too, that not only has the silly old sectional animosity, at the bottom of so much general mischief and operant to a considerable degree against Poe in his life, entirely vanished, but that an almost absolute unanimity of opinion as to his literary merits has come in the literary world. Few names of any importance or promise of permanence were missing from the illustrious list of those whose letters hailed Poe as America’s most illustrious writer and most luminous literary influence. Thus, indeed, was verified by example Professor Minto’s apt dictum years ago: “The feelings to which Poe appeals are simple but universal, and he appeals to them with a force that has never been surpassed.” Mr. Minto should have written “power” instead of “force.” The distinction is infinite, though fine; and was never more applicable than in the case of Poe’s writings. There is no blare of trumpets, no firing of rockets, in the main and mass of Poe’s work. Nearly all are developed in the calm of a sure elemental energy. Even his “pot-boilers” bear traces of this power and of that splendid conscientiousness on which Mr. Mabie did not harp any too much.

Such a vast amount of twaddle has been circulated about Poe’s personal character, his bad habits, his lack of moral perceptions, his indifference to the ­[page 308:] esteem of his fellow men, that one shrinks from dignifying it with much attention or keeping alive the poor little fames of Poe’s chief libellers by citing their names with their absurd accusations. Lowell’s little outfling of unworthy spleen can be easily forgiven. Poe forgave it in advance by defending Lowell from an English blackguard of the pen, and proclaiming Lowell as one of the noblest poets America had then produced. Emerson, who was a greater poet in the rough, to my mind, than Lowell, must be pardoned for his bitterness — Poe had ridiculed his proneness to play Sir Oracle; or possibly it was not bitterness, but a more blindness to Poe’s art and a deafness to Poe’s music. Yet Poe was recognized in a measure, when alive, by men of real intellectual fibre. There is the recognition of hostility as well as that of cordial appreciation and friendship. Perhaps, too, there is in it more certainty of permanent fame and influence. That Poe enjoyed his isolation, to some degree, is not unlikely. Some natures, though not unphilanthropic, are attuned for solitude: some talents ripen in the shade.

There has been, it seems to me, considerable mischief done to Poe and the cause of truth by the over-zeal of some of his champions. The medial sound fact of this whole matter appears to be that Poe, though an almost perfect artist, scarcely deserved that any man should pray to him every morning as Baudelaire used to do; that Poe, though possessed of many winning and gracious attributes when sane, did some dreadful and dreadfully strange things, when not in sober senses; that, as he happened to be a man of genius and temperament combative at all times, his flaws and failings, which would have passed comparatively unnoticed in an ordinary person, got blazoned broadcast to the world.

HENRY AUSTIN.


∞∞∞∞∞∞∞


Notes:

Poe’s review of Lowell’s A Fable for Critics suggests that he did not respond so kindly to Lowell’s criticism. Among other comments, Poe dismisses the book with the statement that “no failure was ever more complete or more pitiable.”

∞∞∞∞∞∞∞

[S:1 - DIAL, 1899] - Edgar Allan Poe Society of Baltimore - A Poe Bookshelf - Poe Coming to His Kingdom (H. Austin, 1899)